Jeremy Grantham on Commodity Prices

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

The Wall Street Journal chats with Jeremy Grantham about commodity prices:

Q: You’ve been ringing alarm bells about commodity prices. Why all the worry?

A: They came down for a hundred years by an average of 70 percent, and then starting around 2002, they shot up and basically everything tripled — and I mean, everything. I think tobacco was the only one that went down. They’ve given back a hundred years of price decline and they gave it back between ’02 and ’08, in six years. The game has changed. I suspect the game changed because of the ridiculous growth rates in China — such a large country, with 1.3 billion people using 45 percent of the coal used in the world, 50 percent of all the cement and 40 percent of all the copper. I mean these are numbers that you can’t keep on rolling along without expecting something to go tilt.

Q: This led to some surprising conclusions, like your concerns about natural resources most of us have barely heard of.

A: We went through one by one, and we decided the most important, the most valuable and the most critical was phosphate or phosphorous. Phosphorous cannot be made, only placed. It is necessary for all living things. And we are mining it, and it’s depleting. And I like to say, if that doesn’t give you goosebumps, then you’re tougher than me. That is a terrible equation. So I went to the professors, and I said, what’s going to happen, and they said, ‘Oh, there’s plenty of phosphorous.’ But what’s going to happen when it runs out? ‘Oh, there is plenty.’ It’s a really weak argument. We do have a lot, but 85 percent of the low-cost, high-quality phosphorous is in Morocco…and belongs to the King of Morocco. I mean, this is an odd situation. Much, much more constrained than oil in the Middle East ever was — and much more important in the end. And the rest of the world has maybe 50 years of reserve if we don’t grow too fast.

Q: What are investors supposed to do?

A: The investment implications are, of course, own stock in the ground, own great resources, reserves of phosphorous, potash, oil, copper, tin, zinc — you name it. I’d be less enthusiastic about aluminum and iron ore just because there is so much. And I wouldn’t own coal, and I wouldn’t own tar sands. It’s hugely expensive to build coal utilities, and the plants they have to build for tar sands are massive, and before they get their money back I suspect that the price of solar and wind will have come down so much.

So I wouldn’t use that, but I think oil, the metals and particularly the fertilizers, I would own — and the most important of all is food. The pressures on food are worse than anything else, and therefore, what is the solution? Very good farming, which can be done. The emphasis from an investor’s point of view is on very good farmland. It’s had a big run. You can never afford to ignore price and value, but from time to time you can get good investments in farmland, and if you’re prepared to go abroad, you can do it today. I wouldn’t be too risky. I would stay with distinctly stable countries — Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, Brazil, Canada, of course, and the U.S. But I would look around, in what I call the nooks and crannies. And forestry is the same. Forestry is not a bad bargain, a little overpriced maybe, but it’s in a world where everything is overpriced today, once again, courtesy of incredibly low interest rates that push people into investing. A wicked plot of the Federal Reserve.

Kids Cutting Grass?

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Mollie Hemingway read the subject line for the latest message on her neighborhood mailing list with interest: “Kids Cutting Grass?

A few years ago I’d used a post with a similar headline to find someone to do some yard work. My husband and I hired a neighborhood kid whose Dad had died the year prior after a long illness. Maybe 13 years old, he’d taken to doing yard work to raise much-needed money and have something to do.

But this email was very different. It read:

We just had a group of adorable and entrepreneurial kids (young, maybe 9-11 years old) offer to mow our grass. Not to be Scrooges in the neighborhood, but what is the general consensus on this around [the neighborhood] re: safety? They looked pretty young, and we didn’t see a parent with them supervising. I realize kids want to earn spending money, but I was interested in getting the pulse on this sort of thing. Teenagers, maybe. But these kids looked like they may be older elementary school aged (guess). We had a family member lose a couple of toes mowing while a young kid, so maybe I’m just overly sensitive.

The next email read, “For anyone whose interested, the [American Academy of Pediatrics] recommends that children be at least 12 years old before operating a push mower and 16 for a ride-on mower, along with a list of safety precautions. Just FYI.”

A link was provided to a page on the AAP web site headlined “Mowing the Lawn Can Be a Dangerous Chore.” Injury prevention tips there include: “Have anyone who uses a mower or is in the vicinity wear polycarbonate protective eyewear at all times.”

I repeat. One tip was that everyone in the vicinity of a lawn mower should be wearing polycarbonate protective eyewear at all times.

A neighbor weighed in: “That’s a good age recommendation, probably. I would also suggest not having any age kid mow if there are any pesticides, herbicides, or insecticides involved. The American Cancer Society considers those to be a risk factor for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, possibly more.”

My mouth dropped open. Was I really reading this right? My older brother and I had done lawn work from a young age growing up in Colorado. He’d mow the grass and I’d weed. We made enough money to buy music, candy and stickers. My brother kept with it long enough to save funds for college. It wasn’t just lawn mowing. Every snowstorm was an opportunity to make some money. After we shoveled the elderly next-door neighbor’s walk for free, we’d venture down the road and try to find takers.

Never had the 1980s seemed so idyllic.

I’ve read your book

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Most people know Rommel as the Desert Fox, the German field marshal who boldly and brilliantly led his Afrika Korps against the British in World War II.

Without knowing much more than that, you could guess that he was a successful World War I officer, too — but that would be an underestimate. He earned the Iron Cross 1st Class and then the Iron Cross 2nd Class before earning the highest order of merit, the oddly named Pour le Mérite — which was no longer awarded after the end of the Prussian monarchy at the end of the war.

He did this as an infantry officer. Between the wars he wrote Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks), which explains how to use speed and deception to overwhelm and surprise the enemy.

He never finished his next book Panzer Greift An (Tank Attacks) — even if that’s what’s on Patton’s bed stand in the movie, when he yells, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

Anyway, I had been led to believe — by a rather dry book on stormtroop tactics — that such infiltration tactics had been slowly discovered by the end of World War I, after being championed by General Oskar von Hutier, and that Rommel had used them to great effect against the Italians just before the armistice was signed. From reading Rommel’s book though, it’s obvious he was using such tactics from Day One, first in France, then against the Romanians, and then later against the Italians.

Here are some of his observations from his first small battle in a French village in 1914:

Fights in inhabited places often take place at extremely short ranges (a few yards). Hand grenades and machine pistols [submachine guns] are essential. Provide fire protection before attacking by means of machine guns, mortars, and assault guns. An attack in a village is usually accompanied by heavy casualties and should be avoided whenever possible. Pin the enemy down to the village by means of fire, or blind him with smoke and hit him outside the village or town.

He earned his first Iron Cross fighting in the woods in France:

A hundred yards from the jump-off we were forced to the ground by heavy enemy fire. We could hardly see more than twenty-five yards through the thick undergrowth and could see nothing of the enemy. Our companies opened fire and worked toward the invisible enemy by means of short rushes. Because of the deafening sound of the rifles, it was impossible to approximate the distance to the enemy. His fire increased in intensity. Our attack was halted.

In order to get the 7th Company moving forward again, Major Salzmann and I got into the front line. I took a rifle and ammunition from a wounded man and took command of a couple of squads. It was impossible to handle a larger unit in those woods. Several times we rushed through the bushes toward the enemy whom we supposed to be very close. We never succeeded in getting to him, but time and again his rapid fire forced us to the ground. The calls for aid men told us that our casualties were increasing.

Pressed flat on the ground, or behind thick oak trees, we let the enemy fire go by and then at the first let-up attempted to gain more ground in his direction. It was becoming harder to get the men to move forward; consequently we gained ground slowly. Judging from the sound of the fighting, our neighbors were about abreast of us.

Once again we rushed the enemy in the bushes ahead of us. A little group of my former recruits came with me through the underbrush. Again the enemy fired madly. Finally, scarcely twenty paces ahead I saw five Frenchmen firing from the standing position. Instantly my gun was at my shoulder. Two Frenchmen, standing one behind the other, dropped to the ground as my rifle cracked. I still was faced by three of them. Apparently my men sought shelter behind me and couldn’t help me. I fired again. The rifle missed fire. I quickly opened the magazine and found it empty.

The nearness of the enemy left no time for reloading, nor was any shelter close at hand. There was no use thinking of escape. The bayonet was my only hope. I had been an enthusiastic bayonet fighter in time of peace and had acquired considerable proficiency. Even with odds of three to one against me, I had complete confidence in the weapon and in my ability. As I rushed forward, the enemy fired. Struck, I went head over heels and wound up a few paces in front of the enemy. A bullet, entering sideways, had shattered my upper left leg, and blood spurted from a wound as large as my fist. At any moment I expected a bullet or bayonet thrust. I tried to close the wound with my right hand and, at the same time, to roll behind an oak. For many minutes I lay there between the two fronts. Finally my men broke through the bushes and the enemy retreated.


Jeffrey Sachs’ Failure to Eradicate Poverty in Africa

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

I didn’t realize what a prodigy economist Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty) was:

By the age of 13, he was taking college math. Later, he got near-perfect scores on his SATs and graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, where by 28 he was a tenured professor. Two years later, he was advising the Bolivian government on how to administer economic “shock therapy,” designed to break the spell of hyperinflation. This led to an even bigger triumph: masterminding Poland’s transition to a market economy in 1989, as communism collapsed in Eastern Europe.

Prodigy or not, Sachs has — surprise!failed to eradicate poverty in Africa:

As [Millennium Villages] money poured in, exciting things started happening in this singularly unpromising place, where all the water came from a single borehole and 80 percent of the population was illiterate. Tin roofs, a sure sign of new wealth, began to proliferate; the health clinic was staffed and equipped. Thanks to Sachs’ tireless fund-raising and salesmanship, big multinational companies were soon pitching in to establish mobile-phone service and provide chemically treated anti-mosquito nets.

But the road to success was not nearly as smooth — or knowable — as Sachs had predicted. The original plan was for the people of Dertu to preserve their nomadic lifestyle. But the abundance of donated food and services drew people from far and wide and induced them to settle. What had originally been little more than a watering hole for camels became a sprawling shantytown, its streets clogged with garbage. The new livestock market failed. The one water pump broke down. People began to fight among themselves for distributed goods. There was drought, followed by flooding. There were epidemics. There was theft, malingering, misreporting, and more.

Similar problems befell other villages. As the villagers’ disillusionment with the project grew, so did Munk’s disillusionment with Sachs. Again and again she saw him move the goalposts or seek additional funding rather than admit that he was failing — that he and the 29 other academics who wrote the Millennium Villages Handbook had been unable to anticipate all the social and environmental complexities at work in even the smallest of villages. “To a large extent,” Munk writes, “the success of the Millennium Villages Project depended on Sachs’ idea of progress.”

Confronted with the inability of his villages to sustain themselves financially, he kept changing the plan, improvising frantically: One moment the answer was to attract tourists, the next it was to transform peasants — who for generations had struggled to grow just enough food to survive — into credit-worthy entrepreneurs harvesting cash crops for export.

The economists in the Millennium Villages headquarters in New York thought Dertu was thriving long after it had begun to fail, and they kept pushing Mohamed to follow the prescribed path up the “development ladder” to prosperity. When someone finally examined the village’s books, all manner of underperformance and discrepancies came to light, and he was “red. “I am feeling betrayed,” he told Munk. “I am feeling I was abandoned.”

Teach for America’s Interesting Ideology

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Olivia Blanchardsep had a miserable experience working for Teach for America. Steve Sailer comments on Teach for America’s interesting ideology:

  • With students, nurture matters more than nature
  • With teachers, nature matters more than nurture

TfA selects only about 11% of its applicants, and it primarily wants college grads who got into elite colleges, earned high grades, and demonstrated strong leadership skills and perseverance. In other words, pre-Harvard Business School types. Then it gives them a ridiculously short five weeks of training, and off they go for two years. But that’s okay because they are innately better than the kind of people who become normal teachers.

And, yes, probably they are. But they can’t be allowed to suspect that some students are better than other students.

How Antibiotics Arrived on the Farm

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Scientists at American Cyanamid’s Lederle laboratory linked animal nutrition and antibiotics — by accident:

The Lederle team was investigating a long-time poultry nutrition mystery: when chickens rooted through bacteria-rich manure — their own or other animals’ — they laid more eggs and enjoyed lower mortality rates and less illness. The team turned its microscopes on those henhouse organisms and discovered that one of them produced a substance that resembled B12. Was B12 was the mysterious factor that distinguished animal proteins from plant-based counterparts? Team members tested that proposition by feeding animals with B12, in this case a batch created with residues from the manufacture of the antibiotic Aureomycin.

They assumed that the B12, like any vitamin, would enhance the animals’ health, but the results astonished them: The animals that ate that Aureomycin-based B12 sample grew fifty percent faster than those fed B12 manufactured from other residues. Initially team members believed that they had discovered yet another vitamin. Further tests revealed the startling truth: They’d inadvertently employed a batch of B12 that contained not just manufacturing residues but tiny amounts of Aureomycin, too.

The two-for-one, marveled a reporter for Science News Letter, “cast the antibiotic in a spectacular new role” for the “survival of the human race in a world of dwindling resources and expanding populations.” Farmers wasted no time abandoning expensive animal proteins in favor of both B12 and infinitesimal, inexpensive doses of antibiotics. Their livestock reached market weight more quickly, and farmers’ production costs dropped. Consumers enjoyed lower prices for pork and poultry.

Reality Show in Spaaaaaace

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Mark Burnett (Survivor) is pitching a reality show that would send the winner into space — just barely:

The winner would take off on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo from Spaceport America in New Mexico — perhaps as soon as next year.

Billionaire Sir Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic as part of his Virgin Group, has already said he plans to be on the first flight, with his family, on Dec. 25 this year. The Burnett show is then expected to pit contestants against each other for a chance at a seat on the second flight.

Tom Hanks, Ashton Kutcher, Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are among the more than 600 people who have already signed up for a Virgin Galactic flight, which cost $250,000 per seat. That price tag puts a commercial space flight out of reach for most people — which is part of the idea behind the Burnett show.

The Virgin Galactic space rides are expected to last around two hours and take passengers up 62 miles above Earth. They’ll experience weightlessness and witness the Earth’s curve. Virgin Galactic has said that the company’s first flights will only come after the passengers’ safety is secured. A start date for flights has been pushed back several times, now with a 2014 target.

This is actually his second — wait, third — go at such a show:

But it’s no secret that the tenacious producer has long hoped to mount a reality show about space, going back to 2000, when he first sold the show Destination Mir to NBC. At the time, the Peacock network agreed to pay Burnett between $35 million and $40 million for Destination Mir, which included the nearly $20 million that Burnett agreed to pay MirCorp — the company that held the lease to Mir.

Destination Mir was planned for the 2001-02 TV season, and would have followed a group of Americans as they underwent cosmonaut training at Russia’s Star City compound and competed, Survivor-style, for a chance to be sent in a rocket to the former Russian space station. The finale would culminate with the live broadcast of the winner’s launch in a Soyuz capsule to Mir.

It wasn’t meant to be, however. The aging space station was brought down in 2001. Burnett tried again a few years later with the renamed Destination: Space, partnering with the Russian Space Agency and a Russian TV network on a show that would have put someone aboard a Soyuz mission to the International Space Station. But the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster turned U.S. networks off the idea.

The first Burnett show I watched was his Eco-Challenge adventure race. He’s a fascinating character:

At age seventeen, he enlisted in the British Army, and became a Section Commander in the Parachute Regiment. From 1978–82 he served with the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (3 PARA) and saw action during the Falklands War.

In October 1982, Burnett decided to immigrate to the United States, where he met up with a friend, Nick Hill, who had also emigrated from Britain a few years earlier and was working as a nanny and chauffeur. Hill knew of an open position for a live-in nanny position with the Jaeger family in Beverly Hills, the interview for which was that night. Although he had no experience in that field, Burnett took the opportunity, and because of his military background, the Jaegers, realizing the advantage of having a nanny and security at the same time, hired him. After a year of working for the Jaegers, he moved on to another family in Malibu, taking care of two boys for $250 a week.

He was eventually given a position in the insurance office owned by Burt, the father of the two boys.Two years later, he decided to rent a portion of a fence at Venice Beach and sell T-shirts for $18 each during weekends. Realizing he made more money selling t-shirts, Burnett left his insurance job.

In 1991, Burnett, along with four others, joined a French adventure competition called the Raid Gauloises. After competing, Burnett saw a business opportunity in holding similar competitions. He purchased the format rights and brought a similar competition, Eco-Challenge, to America. Eco-Challenge launched Burnett’s career as a television producer.

I can’t say I’ve followed his career since then.

Culture is Upstream from Politics

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Andrew Breitbart described himself as an “accidental culture warrior”:

Breitbart — web entrepreneur, writer, provocateur, television personality — did a lot of things. But for the Right, by far the most important thing he did was teach, again and again and again, that culture is upstream from politics.

Breitbart knew instinctively, as people in Washington and most other places did not, that movies, television programs, and popular music send out deeply political messages every hour of every day. They shape the culture, and then the culture shapes politics. Influence those films and TV shows and songs, and you’ll eventually influence politics.

The Left had known that for generations, but on the Right, so many people in politics thought only about politics. To Breitbart, that was folly. “The people who have money, every four years at the last possible second, are told, ‘You need to give millions of dollars, because these four counties in Ohio are going to determine the election,’” Breitbart told the National Policy Council in October 2009. “I am saying, why didn’t we invest 20 years ago in a movie studio in Hollywood, why didn’t we invest in creating television shows, why didn’t we create institutions that would reflect and affirm that which is good about America?”

The Obi-Wan Kenobi of Soil

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

David Brandt farms 1,200 acres in central Ohio, where he uses 14 different plant species as cover crops in the off-season, reducing his need for synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. And he never, ever tills his soil. He has been dubbed the Obi-Wan Kenobi of soil:

We start in Brandt’s field, where we encounter waist-high, deep-green corn plants basking in the afternoon heat. A mat of old leaves and stems covers the soil — remnants of the winter cover crops that have kept the field devoid of weeds. At Brandt’s urging, we scour the ground for what he calls “haystacks” — little clusters of dead, strawlike plant residue bunched up by earthworms. Sure enough, the stacks are everywhere. Brandt scoops one up, along with a fistful of black dirt. “Look there — and there,” he says, pointing into the dirt at pinkie-size wriggling earthworms. “And there go some babies,” he adds, indicating a few so tiny they could curl up on your fingernail.

Then he directs our gaze onto the ground where he just scooped the sample. He points out a pencil-size hole going deep into the soil — a kind of worm thruway that invites water to stream down. I don’t think I’m the only one gaping in awe, thinking of the thousands of miniature haystacks around me, each with its cadre of worms and its hole into the earth. I look around to find several NRCS people holding their own little clump of dirt, oohing and ahhing at the sight.

Then we cross the street to the neighbor’s field. Here, the corn plants look similar to Brandt’s, if a little more scraggly, but the soil couldn’t be more different. The ground, unmarked by haystacks and mostly bare of plant residue altogether, seems seized up into a moist, muddy crust, but the dirt just below the surface is almost dry. Brandt points to a pattern of ruts in the ground, cut by water that failed to absorb and gushed away. Brandt’s land managed to trap the previous night’s rain for whatever the summer brings. His neighbor’s lost not just the precious water, but untold chemical inputs that it carried away.

He also adds wheat to the ubiquitous corn-soy rotation favored by his peers throughout the Corn Belt:

Bringing in a third crop disrupts weed and pest patterns, and a 2012 Iowa State University study found that by doing so, farmers can dramatically cut down on herbicide and other agrichemical use.

Louis CK Explains Why He Doesn’t Want to Get a Smartphone for His Kid

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

Louis CK explains why he doesn’t want to get a smartphone for his kid:

The Diamond Age

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

I was in no hurry to read Neal Stephenson‘s The Diamond Age when it was new, because I had barely managed to finish his breakthrough novel, Snow Crash, which sounded right up my alley, but which really, really rubbed me the wrong way. It felt like it was written by a clever 15-year-old who wasn’t half as clever as he thought he was. For instance:

The protagonist is the aptly named Hiro Protagonist, whose business card reads “Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest swordfighter in the world.” When Hiro loses his job as a pizza delivery driver for the Mafia, he meets a streetwise fifteen-year old girl nicknamed Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), who works as a skateboard Kourier (courier), and they decide to become partners in the intelligence business (selling data to the CIC, the for-profit organization that evolved from the CIA after the U.S. government’s loss of power).

The pair soon learn of a dangerous new drug called “Snow Crash” that is both a computer virus capable of infecting the machines of unwise hackers in the Metaverse and a crippling CNS virus in Reality. It is distributed by a network of Pentecostal churches via its infrastructure and belief system. As Hiro and Y.T. dig deeper (or are drawn in) they discover more about Snow Crash and its connection to ancient Sumerian culture, the fiber-optics monopolist L. Bob Rife, and his aircraft carrier of refugee boat people who speak in tongues. Also, both in the Metaverse and in Reality, they confront one of Rife’s minions, an Aleut harpoon master named Raven whose motorcycle’s sidecar packs a nuke wired to go off should Raven ever be killed. Raven has never forgiven the U.S. for the way they handled the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands (see Aleutian Islands Campaign in World War II) or for the nuclear testing on Amchitka.

Everything is dialed up to 11. Years later, I heard good things about Cryptonomicon. Then I read about his Baroque Cycle, and it sounded even more up my alley — but reading a few pages drove me up the wall. Phant’sy that.

So, when I started noticing more and more references to The Diamond Age, it took a while before I decided to read even the first few pages of the free preview online — and I found nothing that made me want to throw my monitor at the wall.

The near-future Stephenson presents follows the fall of modern nation-states, as cryptography makes taxation and regulation impractical. Instead, individuals belong to phyles of the likeminded and live in city-state-like claves reflecting their values. The hard-working neo-Victorians buy hand-made artisanal goods while designing complex nanotech systems. The thetes, on the other hand, live a Jersey Shore-like existence. Surprisingly — that’s saying something — the book comes down squarely on the side of traditional values over modern non-values:

Along with many other Midwesterners, Finkle-McGraw put in a few weeks building levees out of sandbags and plastic sheeting. Once again he was struck by the national media coverage — reporters from the coasts kept showing up and announcing, with some bewilderment, that there had been no looting. … Finkle-McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.

Unsurprisingly, the book comes down squarely against any hint of human biological diversity — although that description of Equity Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw’s childhood as a Korean orphan adopted by white, Midwestern parents would seem rather ambiguous without the explicit disclaimers.

Stephenson drops pro-Victorian thoughts throughout the book. For instance, he defends them against accusations of hypocrisy:

“We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,“ Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception — he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

It’s a wonderful thing to be clever, Stephenson notes:

“It’s a wonderful thing to be clever, and you should never think otherwise, and you should never stop being that way. But what you learn, as you get older, is that there are a few billion other people in the world all trying to be clever at the same time, and whatever you do with your life will certainly be lost — swallowed up in the ocean — unless you are doing it along with like-minded people who will remember your contributions and carry them forward. That is why the world is divided into tribes.”

More on such tribes:

“Some cultures are prosperous; some are not. Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not. Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it. The only thing they have in common is that if they do not propagate, they will be swallowed up by others. All they have built up will be torn down; all they have accomplished will be forgotten; all they have learned and written will be scattered to the wind. In the old days it was easy to remember this because of the constant necessity of border defence. Nowadays, it is all too easily forgotten.

“New Atlantis, like many tribes, propagates itself largely through education. That is the raison d’être of this Academy.”

More wisdom:

“The old guard believe in that code because they came to it the hard way. They raise their children to believe in that code — but their children believe it for entirely different reasons.”

“They believe it,” the Constable said, “because they have been indoctrinated to believe it.”

“Yes. Some of them never challenge it — they grow up to be small minded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel — as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.”

“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?” said the Constable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”

“Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded — they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”

Nell is the thete protagonist effectively raised by her neo-Victorian LeapPad, the so-called Young Ladies’ Illustrated Primer — which must have seemed much more futuristic in 1995. I’m having trouble remembering life before iPads.

Aiden Glynn’s Street Art

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

Adding eyes and teeth produces smile-inducing street art, Aiden Glynn has found:

Aiden Glynn Street Art 1

Aiden Glynn Street Art 2

Aiden Glynn Street Art 9

Aiden Glynn Street Art 6

The Real Emotion Behind the Arab Spring

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

Mencius Moldbug explains the real emotion behind the Arab Spring:

Actually, Beavis can tell you better. “Fire is cool,” said Beavis. Fire is indeed cool. Americans were bored and needed some better CNN. They wanted to see shit burn. Shit indeed burned, and is still burning. Which was cool. So they got what they wanted. Not too different from the crowd in the Colosseum, just less honest about how they satisfy their very simple chimp/human needs.

And it’s not just sadism that motivates callous altruism. Another source of venal satisfaction is that when you help people, or appear to help them, you become a patron. You gain ownership over them. When you help overthrow the dictator of Egypt, for example, you become in a sense the new government of Egypt. The old dictator was a strongman — the new dictator is a weakman, because he owes his job to someone else. That someone is you — the collective you, but you nonetheless. If you decide you don’t like your weakman, it’s easy to find another weakman.

The fear that someone, somewhere, is exercising power over someone else, is one of the most basic cues of the callous-altruist mentality. Let me kill the master and free the slave. Out of altruism! Not sadism or ambition, of course. My hands are pure.

But slavery is simply dependence, and the default state of the newly “freed” slave is to be dependent on his new master — you, because you killed the old master. So your sadism itch is scratched, because you get to kill; and your ambition itch is scratched, because you become a slavemaster.

(A slavemaster? You may not tell your dependent what to do all day. But if you pay him to do nothing, he is still your slave — you may not ask him to work today, but you could tomorrow. He would have to obey your commands or starve. In other words, he’s a slave. And of course, there’s one thing you’ve surely bought — his vote.)

When Higginson and friends tried this experiment in the 1860s, roughly a fourth of the slaves died as a consequence of the operation. Not to mention all the other people killed. Naturally, since America is a communist country, this episode — which might under other regimes be viewed as an outbreak of mass criminal insanity — is considered one of the most glorious in our glorious history.

Vladimir the Fencing Robot

Friday, September 20th, 2013

I find Vladimir the fencing robot oddly compelling:

What is communism?

Friday, September 20th, 2013

What is communism?

In the terminology of the father of modern political science, Gaetano Mosca, communism is a political formula — a pattern of thinking that helps a subject support the organized minority that governs him. Typically a modern political formula allows the subject to feel a sense of political power that convinces him that he is, in a sense, part of the ruling minority, whether he is or not (usually not). Since humans, and in fact all great apes in the chimp lineage, are political animals evolved to succeed in hierarchically ruled tribes, feeling powerful is deeply satisfying. Communism works because it solves this problem, more effectively than any other political formula in wide distribution today.

When it comes to the formal governance process proper, of course, few are actually in the loop. Just as pornography can stimulate the human sex drive without providing any actual sex, democracy can stimulate the human power drive without providing any actual power. But one of the problems with American democracy today is that it’s far too constant.


Witch-hunting on a purely informal basis, Popehat’s “social consequences,” scratches the political perfectly, because of course here is actual power — the power to harm other human beings — being exercised by ordinary people who are not mysterious DC bureaucrats. Never, ever understate how fun it is to just chimp out for a minute. If you mock it, it’s because you’ve never had a chance to be part of the mob. You can condemn it as a vile, base passion, which of course it is — and a human passion as well. We really all are Caliban.

But we have an angelic nature too, and our angelic forebrains need a cover story while the chimp hindbrain is busy biting off toes and testicles. Pure sadism is enough for the id. It’s not enough for the ego. This is why we need communism.

And what is communism? As a political formula? Perhaps we can define it, with a nice 20th-century social-science jargon edge, as nonempathic altruism. Or for a sharper pejorative edge, callous altruism.

What is callous altruism? Altruism itself is a piece of 20th-century jargon. We could contrast it with the original word for the same thing, obviously too Christian to prosper in our age: charity. When we say charity, of course, we think of empathic altruism.

When we think of charity, we think not just of helping others — but of helping others whom we know and love, for whom we feel a genuine, unforged emotional connection. For whom we feel, in a word, empathy. Understandably, these people tend to be those who are socially close to us. If not people we already know, they are people we would easily befriend if we met them.

Dickens, no stranger to genuine empathy, had a term for nonempathic altruism. He called it telescopic philanthropy. Who is Peter Singer? Mrs. Jellyby, with tenure.

So, for example, in classic Bolshevik communism, who is the revolution for? The workers and peasants. But, in classic Bolshevik communism, who actually makes the revolution? Nobles (Lenin) and Jews (Trotsky), basically. To wit, the groups in Russian society who are in fact most distant — emotionally, culturally, socially — from actual workers and peasants.

Similarly, the most passionate anti-racists in America are all to be found, in early September, at Burning Man. Everyone at Burning Man, with hardly an exception, is highly altruistic toward African-Americans. But, to within an epsilon, there are no African-Americans at Burning Man.

But wait, why is this wrong? What’s wrong with nonempathic altruism? Why does it matter to the people being helped if the brains of their helpers genuinely light up in the love lobe, or not? Loved or not, they’re still helped — right?

Or are they? How’d that whole Soviet thing work out for the workers and peasants?

Heck, for the last 50 years, one of the central purposes of American political life has been advancing the African-American community. And over the last four decades, what has happened to the African-American community? I’ll tell you one thing — in every major city in America, there’s a burnt-out feral ghetto which, 50-years ago, was a thriving black business district. On the other hand, there’s a street in that ghetto named for Dr. King. So, there’s that.